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Sumo: Los Angeles

The Pretty Puzzle: Lane Kiffin's USC

There's no clear read on what we'll see from Los Angeles football this season, but that's what the games are for. First up: Red Team!

1. Happy Is What Happens When All Your Dreams Come True

No preseason watch list, defined here as “football teams we want to watch,” would be complete without both Los Angeles FBS squads, even before unpacking their narratives for 2013. They’re programs with rich histories and a bitter rivalry, and they bring that reptilian-cortex appeal of Red Team Versus Blue Team to every meeting on the field. And this season, in an ascendant Pac-12, both teams are traveling on uncertain trajectories. Was UCLA’s 2012 breakout season an aberration? And was USC’s 2012 skid a hiccup, or a symptom of advanced empire implosion?

We don’t know. We talk about it to pass the time. Three years in, with all the external factors in play, trying to get the measure of USC under Kiffin feels a lot like stabbing patches of turf with a sword made of Jell-O.

The program is a wealthy one! Hamstrung by sanctions! In one of the most talent-rich states in America! Which contains three other AQ programs, all of which inhabit an increasingly quality-crowded Pac-12! But shouldn’t a coach be judged exactly on his performance under adverse conditions? But is losing 10 scholarships a year for three years taxing the definition of “adverse”? Is the color cardinal a product of absorbed and reflected light, or a social construct?

We are strangely comfortable not knowing quite what to think of this era of Trojan football, even this far into the post-Carroll years, is our point.

“No matter whether you have a good or a bad season,” says Lane Kiffin, “every team is different. We were an example of that a year ago,” when the Trojans followed up 18 wins in his first two seasons with a 7-6 campaign that saw a five-game rivalry win streak snapped by the Bruins.1 “All the expectations [were] to just take off where we left [off], and we didn’t.”

Young coaches unafraid to run their mouths are an endlessly renewable resource with a short half-life. Kiffin was never a boring interview during his ill-fated year at Tennessee, his first as a college head coach. It will never not be funny, no matter your allegiance, that this fresh-faced smartmouth left the SEC carrying a 1-0 lifetime record against Steve Spurrier. We may not see such an enthusiastic tweaking of Mike Slive’s sensibilities again in our natural lives. But entering the fourth season of his reign in Troy, the brash brat of 2009 is no longer in evidence.

It’s the end of USC’s first day in full pads, and Kiffin looks wrung out, slumped on a folding table in the shadow of a practice field wall. He gets to be tired. Attrition and injuries and scholarship sanctions have depleted USC’s roster. This is still USC, a star-bellied Sneetch team even in times of great upheaval, and the players coming in are all recognizable prospects of good Rivals standing. But the Trojans do not have the luxury, now, of whiffing on player development, of signing the wrong guy at a crucial position, or even of sitting their freshmen for a year. It’s been a grim learning experience for a coach who came in without much experience of doing more with less.

“We don’t even talk about redshirting our new guys,” says Kiffin. “We expect them to play. We need them to play.”

The Trojans will never want for bright spots. Recruiting hotshot players to Southern California could probably be done by a fleet of well-trained pigeons. Kiffin wonders if maybe that’s been the problem. “Sometimes kids just pick SC, and they don’t necessarily know much about it. They just go there because they see it on TV.2 They’re not necessarily choosing it to be a Trojan.

“When all those things, throughout the sanctions, and all the negativity that can come with a reduced roster, make it easier to go somewhere else? I believe the guys that do come here, over the last couple years, they really want to be here. They want to get their degree from USC and play football here.”

He’s musing now. “Sometimes teams perform better when maybe they have less stars.”

The Trojans might have fewer stars, but there’s a lot to recommend this team when setting your mental season passes for 2013. Matt Barkley’s replacement will be new or nearly new, depending on how the race between Max Wittek and Cody Kessler shakes out. The defense is once again in transition under Clancy Pendergast, which Kiffin says has finally given the team a natural position for defensive journeyman Devon Kennard, who’s blossoming at outside linebacker.

And then there’s Marqise Lee, reigning Biletnikoff winner and in the thick of every serious argument over who might be the best player in college football.3

“Marqise,” says Kiffin, “is a very abnormal kid.” He’s talking here about Lee’s unselfishness and emotional resilience, but we hear “abnormal” and just start mentally rolling his highlight reel, nodding along.

Lee is where it becomes easy to develop a rooting interest in USC. As professional polytheistic football fans, way down in our lizard brains, it’s down to this:

Yes. Happy now. More. There was a brief window of time last week when we thought Lee might be lost to us for a while, and in that window we felt pangs wholly inappropriate for a non-alum. There are always a few players floating around without whom a given season would be infinitely bleaker. Here’s one. Treasure him for this too-brief time in which he is ours.

2. Deleted Scenes

• Correction. Coach Kiffin, how do you respond to Kessler’s assertion that throwing to Lee is “like throwing to a 20-foot net”? “I don’t know about 20. But 10, yeah.” Lee, laughing and almost sheepish: “If the ball goes up, I’m going to get it. That’s really about it.”

• #c’estlaguerre. Grown-up Kiffin is, by design, less imminently quotable than the egg-toothed Kiffin of 2009, but here’s a fantastic and succinct summation of raising star athletes on a 24-hour media cycle: “There’s no private moments. That’s changed. Everything they write somewhere, everything they do, they have to realize that it’s going national.”

• We like Lee. Who does Lee like? Freshman WR Darreus Rogers draws high praise from the Trojans’ most famous player still on the roster. “To come in here as a freshman and not know anything, to just be getting acclimated, he’s getting it so fast.”

• From the mouths of bros. A more accurate assessment of Lee’s injury scare cannot be made:

3. Designated Talisman: Planting the Sword

USC Mascot

We mean no disrespect to the plush predatory cats and birds of prey and dogs of hunting and leisure that walk America’s sidelines upright on game days and maybe make throat-slashing gestures at opposing student sections when the cameras are pointed elsewhere, but the thing is, this guy has a sword.

4. Stay Tuned

• USC football commences: Thursday, August 29, in a prime-time game at Hawaii.

• Conference play commences: Saturday, September 7, hosting Washington State.

• Required viewing: At Notre Dame, Saturday, October 19.

Filed Under: Teams, USC

holly_anderson

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson

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